Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The sun should look particularly bright in Diablo Stadium on Tuesday, at least for the home team. That's because the heart of the Los Angeles Angels' offense, Albert Pujols, is expected to make his first appearance of spring training.
Pujols had offseason knee surgery and wasn't expected to play in a game until a later this month, but he must be ahead of schedule, as he'll be the designated hitter against the Cincinnati Reds.
It was a wild ride for Pujols and his fantasy owners last season. And an unexpected one for probably the most consistent fantasy stud of all time.
Over his first 11 major league seasons - all with the St. Louis Cardinals - Pujols never scored less than 99 runs, hit less than 32 home runs, knocked in less than 99 runs, batted less than .299 or posted an OPS of less than .906.
In fact, an "average" season for Pujols was .328, 117 runs, 40 homers, 120 RBI and a 1.037 OPS.
However, in year No. 12, his first after signing a megadeal with the Angels, the slugger reached none of those numbers.
A slow start with the Angels was so bad that fantasy owners were talking about trading him. Some actually did after Pujols went 27 games before hitting his first home run of the season. Through his first 35 games (May 14), the first baseman was batting .197 with just the one home run and 12 RBIs.
Those who stuck with Pujols through his early struggles were rewarded, however, as he batted .326 in June, .330 in July and .312 in August with a total of 21 homers over the three-month span. He slumped again in September/October hitting just .269 with one home run in 29 games as the Angels failed to make the playoffs.
Pujols finished the 2012 season with a .285 batting average, 85 runs, 30 homers, 105 RBI and an .859 OPS. Pretty good statistics for most players, but well below average for "The Machine."
Then he had offseason knee surgery.
So fantasy owners are left with a huge question.
Which Albert Pujols will we see on Opening Day 2013? The one who was the first hitter off the board in almost every fantasy draft for a decade, or the guy we saw last season who appeared mortal for the first time in his career?
Changing teams and leagues could certainly have been the cause for his early season struggles. Facing new pitchers who he may never have seen, or saw just a time or two during interleague play, probably played a significant role in his April and May struggles.
And he might have been pressing a bit, trying to show that he was worthy of the 10-year, $240 million contract.
Therefore we choose to believe that Pujols is still a great hitter and worthy of a top-10 selection on draft day. He's not likely to be No. 1 overall; most fantasy owners are gravitating to teammate Mike Trout. But Pujols will be the heart of an offense that added Josh Hamilton to an already strong lineup. As long as Pujols makes it through spring training without any additional physical ailments, we like his chances to return to being "Prince Albert."
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